“Proud Mary” actress Taraji P. Henson rocking short natural hairstyle and leather ensemble at the 16th Annual Heroes in the Struggle Awards. (Photo Courtesy: Lionel Hahn)

This year, the Black Aids Institute brought out some of its most prominent heroes to be honored for their advocacy and contributions in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the Black Community. The theme for the night at the 16th Annual Heroes in the Struggle Awards was Black Men Honoring Black Women. Held at 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles, Black AIDS Institute Founder Phill Wilson collaborated with “Empire” star and event chair Jussie Smollett, to honor the brilliant Black women who have served as change-agents in the struggle.

The night’s honorees included “Empire” star Taraji P. Henson, Gina Belafonte, Alfre Woodard, Laverne Cox, Vanessa Williams, and Gina Brown. Novant Health received the Corporate Hero award. Notable attendees also included Danny Glover, Mahershala Ali, Elise Neal, Van Jones, Laz Alonso and Nene Leakes, to name a few. Grammy-award nominee Ledisi performed a heartfelt rendition of her song “Yesterday”, as a tribute to women in the struggle.

HIV/AIDS advocate and Heroes in the Struggle award recipient Gina Brown says word choice is important when working with people dealing with the HIV/AIDS virus. (Photo Courtesy: Lionel Hahn)

For Smollett, it was important to honor the women who’ve made an impact in a fight he’s most passionate about. “At the age of fifteen, I began working with the Black AIDS Institute and I am proud to be a member of the Board of Directors,” said Jussie Smollett.

“Although it is not spoken about like it used to, the AIDS epidemic is not over, especially in Black communities.  I am humbled to pay tribute to these remarkable women in our community,” Smollett said.

According to Wilson and findings by the Black AIDS Institute, more than “59% of women living with HIV in the United States are Black,” and “Black women account for 60% of the new HIV infections among women,” making them 16 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than their White female counterparts. “This event not only allows us to acknowledge the invaluable role Black women have played in the AIDS fight, but it helps raise awareness about the devastating impact AIDS continues to have on Black women and the opportunities we have to turn that around if Black men and women work together,” Wilson said.

“Orange is the New Black” star Laverne Cox pictured at 16th Annual Heroes in the Struggle Awards. (Photo Courtesy: Lionel Hahn)

Throughout the evening, a series of visuals were projected of Black women who’ve been subjected to the HIV/AIDS virus in varying ways. Long time activist, Hydeia Broadbent, who was born with the virus, says she’s proud to bring awareness to those who believe that since she was born with the disease, her story doesn’t apply to them. “This same disease I am living with is the same disease you can get if you don’t practice safe sex and know your HIV status and the HIV status of your sexual partner. I ask people to use my testimony as a warning of what you don’t want to go through,” Broadbent said.

Gina Brown was pregnant with her daughter when she received the news that she was HIV positive on April Fool’s Day in 1994. Brown, who now serves as an advocate for women across the globe, says word choice is important when speaking with anyone who carries the HIV/AIDS virus. She says it’s important that medical providers use a person’s first name and last initial in medical facilities, when calling out names for treatment, and that using the term “infected” is insulting to anyone dealing with the virus. Brown says that first she’s a woman, a woman who’s journey includes dealing with the HIS/AIDS virus.

“Burning Sands” Actress and HIV/AIDS advocate Alfre Woodard pictured on the red carpet before receiving distinction as a Hero in the Struggle. (Photo Courtesy: Lionel Hahn)

Henson, who is a native of Washington, D.C., a city with the largest HIV infection rate in the nation, says she’s always compelled to not only speak out, but take action, noting that it’s hard for her to sleep at night knowing it’s within her power to be a blessing to those who need it the most. “My father always told me: if you are blessed, it is your duty to go out to the world and be a blessing. Some people do it and some don’t. I’m one that does and I’m so glad that Jussie does too, I’m in good company,” Henson stated. Henson was presented with her award by “Empire” co-star Terrence Howard and film director John Singleton, who gushed at Henson’s tenacity on and off the screen.

As the fight continues, Smollett hopes that many will take into consideration the weight Black women carry on their shoulders to fight many injustices. “I just feel like regardless of who you fall in love with, race or gender, if you cannot appreciate or respect and honor all that a Black woman is, you need to seriously rethink your entire existence in life,” he said.

“Empire” actor Jussie Smollett served as event chair and the Heroes’ portrait photographer this year and says it was important to honor the Black women who’ve made significant strides in the fight against HIV/AIDS. (Photo Courtesy: Lionel Hahn)

“I’ve always been a Black man who wants to honor Black women. I come from a Black woman, my sisters are Black women; there is nothing that I’d rather do than sit in front of my mother tonight and show her that I’m honoring Black women,” Smollett declared.

Actress and philanthropist Vanessa Williams pictured on the red carpet before receiving distinction as a Hero in the Struggle. (Photo Courtesy: Lionel Hahn)
Film Director John Singleton, and “Empire” co-stars Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard after presenting Henson with the Heroes in the Struggle Medal of Honor. (Photo Courtesy: Lionel Hahn)
Black Aids Institute Founder Phill Wilson standing alongside “Empire” co-stars Jussie Smollett and Taraji P. Henson at the 16th Annual Heroes in the Struggle Awards. (Photo Courtesy: Lionel Hahn)
Gina Belafonte, daughter to legendary actor Harry Belafonte, is crowned with the Heroes in the Struggle medal by yet another legend, Danny Glover. (Photo Courtesy: Lionel Hahn)


To see exclusive interviews with the nights’ honorees and guests, visit www.lasentinel.net.